Mash The Gas – Charlotte Preview

After the drama of last week’s “big one” at the end of the Talladega race, it’s got to be good to be home for the drivers and crews. Charlotte Motor Speedway is the location for the fifth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with the Bank of America 500 under the lights this Saturday night.

The Charlotte Motor Speedway is known for its changing track conditions relative to the weather and the Sprint Cup contenders will face a much different speedway than they encountered back in May in the Coca-Cola 600 as the weather will certainly be cooler now in October.

Matt Kenseth won this race in 2011 and is coming off a huge win last weekend. Kasey Kahne won the spring race at Charlotte this year capturing the first of his two victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series this season.

334 laps make up the distance for the Bank of America 500 on Saturday evening, October 13th, with the green flag scheduled to start the race at 7:46pm EDT. Catch the race live in Concord, NC or watch it on your local ABC station.

Jimmie Johnson
John Wiedemann: Charlotte Motor Speedway is special for Jimmie Johnson, only the fourth driver to ever win three Bank of America 500s with a win in 2009 (Mark Martin, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough are the others). Johnson’s first two Bank of America victories came in Saturday night showdowns in 2004 and 2005.

Dan Margetta: There was a time when Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team owned Charlotte as they rattled off six wins with relative ease. Johnson still has the best driver rating among his peers here, however in recent years, the results have trailed off a bit. Johnson finished 11th here back in May and was a dismal 34th at Atlanta, the most recent race at a similar 1.5 mile track. We can’t however, ignore the team’s history and Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have a knack for stepping up to the plate when it counts and I think they will be up front Saturday night.

Kasey Kahne
DM: Back in May, Kasey Kahne came to Charlotte in desperate need of a strong run to salvage his season and he responded by winning the Coca-Cola 600, setting him in the direction to be a part of this year’s Chase. Now in the Fall, Kahne returns to Charlotte within striking distance of the championship lead, but still 36 points behind Brad Keselowski. Saturday night presents a grand opportunity for Kahne to close the gap between himself and the top three as he already owns four Charlotte wins and has the third best driver rating at the track.

JW: This could be a make it or break it point in the Chase for Kasey Kahne. While it is not a must win race, Kahne needs to remain within sight of standings leaders Keselowski and Johnson. Finishing ten positions behind Keselowski would mean a whole race of points that Kahne would need to make up. Kahne is definitely good at Charlotte and mile-and-a-half tracks. This weekend and next weekend at Kansas could see him surge in the standings.

Brad Keselowski
DM: The Series point leader owns a single top five finish at Charlotte and that came last May in the Coca-Cola 600 but don’t count this team out just yet. Whether it’s publicly calling out competitors on their set-ups or simply blaring the type of music the garage neighbors, who happen to be their main competition for the championship, disdain the most, Keselowski and the #2 team have gotten into everyone’s heads and the most psychological driver of the Chase finds himself in the Championship driver’s seat heading into Charlotte. For the first time in a few weeks, the team is not bringing a brand new car to the track, choosing instead to race the chassis Keselowski drove to a top ten finish at Indianapolis.

JW: I’ve said it before in this column, throw out the stats. Brad Keselowski is a threat each and every week. Now that he is in the position he is in, with a fourteen point lead, he is going to try and bury the competition. BK may have lost at Charlotte in a video game, but now it’s for real and Keselowski is going to win Saturday night.

Matt Kenseth
DM: The defending Charlotte Fall race winner returns fresh off a victory at Talladega last week and the strategy is simple from here on out-take the Chase one race at a time and try to win as many as they can in hopes of climbing back into the points race. Kenseth runs well at Charlotte as the track demands precise car set-ups and solid race strategy, both of which the #17 team is known for. Kenseth will race the same car he did at Chicago and if everything is tight and secure on the car, we could see the #17 in victory lane for a second consecutive week.

Kyle Busch
JW: Kyle Busch led fifty-five laps in the Coca-Cola 600 this year finishing third, and led 111 laps in this race last fall before finishing second. With two second place and two third place finishes in the last five races at Charlotte, expect Busch to be in the mix and maybe even capture his first ever Sprint Cup Series win at the track.

Jeff Gordon
DM: Although the point standings don’t show it, Jeff Gordon has been the hottest driver on the circuit in the last seven weeks, finishing third or better in six of them with four second place finishes. The only blemish came at Chicago where a mechanical issue caused a crash while Gordon was running third. This team is reminiscent of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals who came from seemingly nowhere to win the World Series last year. Gordon has five Charlotte victories to his credit and a sixth could very easily come Saturday night.

Greg Biffle
JW: Greg Biffle has led laps in his last four races at Charlotte, including 204 out of the 400 run in the Coca-Cola 600 this year. Now is the time for Biffle to make a move or it will be too late. Already 49 points behind, Biffle needs to do well and have misfortune visit his competitors. Biffle’s best finish at Charlotte is second (in 2008) and he needs to do one position better this weekend.

Denny Hamlin/Martin Truex
DM: In looking at similar 1.5 mile tracks over the last several weeks, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex stand out as Hamlin won races at Kansas and Atlanta and Truex dominated those events only to see the victory elude him in the end. Both could be tough Saturday night at Charlotte where Hamlin needs to keep pace with Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson while Truex needs a win to get back into the title fight.

Chase Standings heading into Charlotte:
Brad Keselowski 2179 points, still leader after wild finish and increases gap to 14 points
Jimmie Johnson 2165 points, remains in 2nd place but loses nine points to leader
Denny Hamlin 2156 points, loses 7 points to 23 points behind leader
Kasey Kahne 2143 points, loses 4 to 36 points behind leader
Clint Bowyer 2139 points, loses 15 points to 40 behind leader
Jeff Gordon 2137 points, picked up four spots and 6 points to 42 behind BK
Tony Stewart 2133 points, dropped 2 spots and is now 46 points behind leader
Martin Truex Jr. 2131 points, loses 6 points to 48 points behind leader
Kevin Harvick 2130 points, loses 3 points to 49 points behind
Greg Biffle 2130 points, picked up 2 points to 49 points behind
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2128 points, biggest loser this week – drops 4 spots and 12 points to 51 behind
Matt Kenseth 2117 points, still in basement but picked up 10 points to 62 behind

A New Hope
JW: A perfect storm of events has landed three Sprint Cup drivers in interesting rides for Saturday night. The Furniture Row Racing team signed Kurt Busch to drive the #78 in 2013, but decided now is the time to get started. So Busch will be replacing Regan Smith starting with the Charlotte race and James Finch, the owner of the team Busch was driving for, signed Smith to drive the #51 at Charlotte.

But wait, Dale Earnhardt Jr is suffering from concussion symptoms following a tire test wreck at Kansas and being involved in the “big one” at Talladega last weekend and will sit out the next two races. Smith has been tabbed to drive the #88 and that leaves a seat open for AJ Allmendinger to return to the Sprint Cup Series following his suspension for failing a drug test. Allmendinger was reinstated by NASCAR about a month ago.

Three drivers have a lot to prove this weekend. Busch is the safest, since he is signed to drive for Furniture Row Racing in 2013. After the incident at Talladega last weekend where he drove off while medical personnel were trying to attend to him, Busch should be happy to be able to race this weekend. Always a fierce competitor, Busch lets that get in the way and needs to start this new chapter off right and work his way into adjusting to the new ride. The #78 ride, while not a top team, has the ability to run well week after week. Throw in the link to Richard Childress Racing and the team could sniff the Chase field next season. It is all up to Kurt, and if there is a new leaf, now is the time to turn it over.

Neither Smith nor Allmendinger have a contract for next year. Smith will be driving in arguably the best equipment available in the Sprint Cup Series and will be looking to back up his top five finish last weekend as well as improve on his best finish of eighth at Charlotte. Allmendinger has two top ten finishes at Charlotte driving for Richard Petty last year, but he will have a challenge getting back up to speed in the equipment that Kurt Busch has left him.

It will be interesting to watch these three drivers this weekend and see what they make of their new opportunities.

By the way, I give Junior all the respect in the world for making the decision to leave it in the doctor’s hands and allow himself to heal before climbing back in the car. It took a lot of guts to make that decision and I believe it is the right one. The toughest thing for an athlete must be to step back from the field of play, especially for health reasons. I commend Junior on making that choice.

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